Banner triangles

Leading and adapting in challenging times: running a great virtual meeting

Now the norm in everyone's working life, how can you run great virtual meetings for both leaders and participants?

In the coming months and beyond, with enforced home working for the majority, virtual meetings will continue become the norm for business interaction.  A wide range of technology is readily available in addition to conference calls, and it’s an opportunity for teams and client meetings to have a different dynamic, building on individual engagement, trust and speaking openly among teams.

Like any meeting, consideration needs to be given to the purpose and expected outputs.  Crucially, you need to consider the structure of the agenda and how you can ensure engagement of all participants.  By having a clear agenda with intended outputs and actions, it provides individuals with clarity on the purpose and how they can contribute. 

Seek input from others - it can help to prepare a skeleton agenda and circulate ahead of the meeting asking for contributions from those attending.  Ask what topics or issues they would prioritise for discussion within the given time. However, if there are items you choose not to include, ensure to communicate a clear rationale for your decision to the individual. 

Avoid using the time as a report download or presenting updates. Sending out a short-bulleted summary on key items, along with the agenda, ahead of the meeting will help those attending to prepare any questions on issues they’d like to comment on or raised to the agenda.  Use the meetings as a collaborative space for everyone to get involved. 

Along with making the agenda attractive to all, inject an element of fun. Make people want to join your meeting and look forward to future ones.

Plan where you’ll be - with physical meetings half the battle is finding an available space.  Equally important with a virtual space is considering where you can host/attend where disruptions will be minimised.  Establish best practice at the start, whilst recognising that colleagues (and your circumstances) may be juggling work and family commitments at home.

Camera ready - humans value connecting as close to human-to-human as possible, so when separated by distance, to reduce feelings of isolation, use video.  Using cameras can make people feel more engaged, a major challenge for virtual meetings is silence. Individuals are unsure if someone is paying attention or is physically responding to a comment, for example nodding their head in agreement or looking quizzically because they’ve not understood.   Facial expressions matter greatly.

Initially there could be some reluctance, colleagues suggesting that staring at themselves or others is distracting.  Hold firm.  The importance of socialising the experience is crucial to its success.

If anyone finds staring at themselves on screen distracting, consider using a post it to cover your own video feed so focus can be given to the other members in the meeting.

During the meeting

For a virtual meeting to be truly successful, there are two crucial aspects: be respectful of others’ time and be present.  Failing to do this will harm trust with individuals in the meeting and can feel like time wasted, neither of which can be recovered easily.

A strong start to the meeting will set the tone for anyone joining.  That begins with being prepared and ready ahead of the start time.  Being present physically and mentally is crucial.  It’s likely that some colleagues won’t have participated in many virtual meetings, though it’s become increasingly common practice over the past few weeks.

Check in - as you would in a physical meeting, spend the first few minutes on a personal/professional basis chatting with the attendees.  It’s important to notice those that are quieter and encourage them to also share.  If it’s the first time this has been done, set out the agenda and tone for the meeting explaining any housekeeping rules, eg muting phones before you start

Sharing professional challenges - by encouraging inter-action by the team and generating differing viewpoints and fresh ideas to business challenges, people will see each other as sources of advice which will enable stronger collaboration.

Virtual taboos leaders need to set the standards expected of everyone in the meeting.  Avoid taking another call or looking at e-mails, as essentially, you’re ‘checking out’ of the meeting.  Humans cannot multitask when attempting more than one cognitive task at a time.  Once thought of as a way to get many things done at once is now recognised as a way to do many things poorly.  The impact on us is that the brain uses more time and fuel to get orientated, for others it can feel disrespectful and that they and their subject is unimportant.

To keep the engagement of those attending the meeting and prevent multi-tasking by others, call on people to share their views throughout the meeting as they won’t want to be caught off guard.  Equally, assigning different tasks for individuals like taking minutes and tracking actions will engage people at each meeting.

Follow up and feedback - Too often at the close of a meeting, there are several side meetings that take place to talk about the meeting.  It’s crucial, especially in this time of isolation that individuals have an opportunity and feel safe to air any dissatisfaction or frustration with anything that’s been discussed.  Make space on the agenda for a ‘formal check out’ and give each person some space to share their conscious feelings and thoughts.

Equally, when wrapping up the meeting, encourage individuals to reflect and then give feedback on what’s been valuable, what’s worked well and what could, perhaps be changed or done differently next time.

It’s likely that many of the attendees will be joining another virtual meeting directly after yours, ensure to finish on time and distribute the actions as soon as possible to sustain momentum and progress on key issues/ideas.


This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2022.


Read the latest articles and commentary from Shoosmiths or you can explore our full insights library.